A ‘Who’s Who’ of Ireland’s great benefactors will rarely nowadays include a biography of Fr Theobald Mathew. His enormous achievements and legacy will be skipped over, as if to minimise the enduring impact of his endeavours to help the Irish extricate themselves from the heartbreak and sorrow of addiction to alcohol, writes PAULA MURRAY
Today the message of Fr Mathew is sorely needed, as Irish young people as a group, like their peers in so many other countries, seem deaf to all the warnings from their elders. They seem to have little idea of how easily alcohol addiction is acquired. Fr Theobald, now dead for over 150 years, would have his hands full in the Ireland of today. Were he a time-traveller, all his charismatic skills would be required to persuade the youth of Ireland that drinking alcohol is not a harmless activity.
The debate over alcohol addiction is never far from the Irish conversation. It is omni-present, and ubiquitous. Yet, it was Fr Mathew who put this issue in the forefront of the national debate, and made it impossible to ignore. The abuse of alcohol and the casualness of the Irish people towards it was always on his mind and, aiding the Irish as a nation, in effect, educating and advising them, became his life’s work.
Few would have predicted that the shy teenager, self-effacing and uncertain in the family home in County Tipperary would one day become the most charismatic preacher of his era. Fr Mathew didn’t have a magic formula, or even a guarantee of success. From pastoral experience, he knew that our pre-Famine population of eight million was far too inclined to indulge. The imperialism of Britain was often cited as an excuse. However, even after the dreadful trauma of the Famine, the love of the Irish for drink did not go away. If anything, it increased, although our population had been reduced by over three million. For Fr Mathew, it would be an uphill road.
The self-imposed task he underwent to reform Irish drinking habits would exhaust him but he kept battling on until his death on 8 December 1856. The boy who would one day become the Venerable Matt Talbot and one of the glories of the ‘pledge’, a concept promoted vigorously and successfully by Fr Mathew, was born in the May of that same year.
Fr Theobald was one of twelve children, nine boys and three girls. He was born on 10 October, 1790. ‘Toby’ was the nick-name by which his family knew him, and ‘Darlin’ Master Toby’ by the poor of the locality who considered him ‘a born saint’. He was educated in Thurles and Kilkenny, excelling at Greek, Latin and English history. After applying and being accepted for Maynooth, ‘Toby’s stay there was cut short because the authorities in the college took umbrage at his organising a social event. Toby went home, dejected and embarrassed and, for some time, had little to do by way of ecclesiastical engagements, until it struck him to join the Capuchin Order, where he was quickly accepted as a novice.
He was one of the generation of young Irish people to make their way to seminaries and novitiates once again, as the rigors of the Penal Laws began to ease early in the nineteenth century. In both Kilkenny and Dublin, Fr Theobald was singled out by the congregation as being a rare and kind confessor. It would be in Cork, though, that ‘Toby’s’ great life’s work had its origins: ending the scourge of alcohol abuse. Thus, the yearning congregations of Cork would readily adopt the ardent young man from Co Tipperary. In addition, ‘Toby’ became renowned for his generosity to the poor. He would never allow a poor person to go away empty-handed. ‘Give, give’, he used to say, ‘what you have, you got from God.’
Theobald was elected Provincial of the Capuchin Order in 1822, on the death of the then Provincial, and held that office for almost thirty years, eventually retiring due only to ill health. Contrary to public opinion, Fr Mathew did not invent the concept of total abstinence. It began in America the previous century, and had much success with Protestant communities, who embraced the whole notion of abstaining from alcohol, in cases where moderation failed. The Quaker community also recommended abstinence, and it was one of their own, a Quaker called Martin who set the ball rolling in Cork, very close to where Fr Mathew lived with his community. At this juncture, Fr Mathew began to consider the possibility of promoting total abstinence from alcohol among his beleaguered people. The whole jigsaw of finding and ending the curse of alcohol addiction came together in his mind, and he suddenly saw a way forward.
On 10 April 1838, Fr Mathew uttered his famous phrase ‘Here goes in the name of God’, and launched, in Cork, with Quaker Martin, what became a great temperance campaign, introducing large numbers of his fellow-Irish to the notion of total abstinence from alcohol. Large crowds came to hear Fr Mathew preach. He was invited all over Ireland as well as to Britain and the United States to spread his message. Hundreds of thousands of people of all religious persuasions took the pledge on hearing him speak. The statue of him in Dublin’s O’Connell Street shows him as he was - enthusiastic, exhorting, encouraging others, as he reached to the skies.
Fr Mathew’s success as a temperance leader is indisputable. His legacy waned when, after his death, many of those ‘pledge-takers’ reverted back to alcohol-abuse. Nevertheless, many families and communities reaped a plethora of rewards for as long as they remained abstainers. Fr James Cullen, Pioneer founder, was inspired by the work of Fr Mathew and had the ambition to take up where his great predecessor had left off. In a sense, Fr Mathew was the forerunner of the Pioneer movement. Perhaps in the Ireland of today, those of us blessed enough to be Pioneers, can offer up our gift of abstinence for the people we know or hear of, who can’t abstain at all. Perhaps we, who don’t drink alcohol, can ‘launch into the deep’ with a prayer that life may be made bearable for those whose drinking is a source of suffering for both themselves and others.